A pilot shortage may sound like a decidedly first-world problem. But for the business aviation industry, the lack of pilots is a very real and impactful issue – and it’s neither simple or easily resolved.
What’s causing the pilot shortage?
The pilot shortage is often referred to as a “perfect storm”: a combination of circumstances converging into a serious situation. This storm isn’t unexpected, but it is significant. Aviation experts agree that the current and coming lack of pilots stems from 5 main factors:
1. An aging workforce
Almost 50% of the pilots flying today are Baby Boomers.1 Many of these pilots began their careers when commercial airlines exploded in the 1980s, and have now been flying for 30 years or more. Although the FAA extended the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 60 to 65 in 2007, 42% of the active pilot workforce will still retire by the end of 2026.2 This is creating unprecedented demand – and younger generations are in no hurry to meet it.
2. Problems attracting and training new pilots
The pilot pipeline faces a number of issues. The military was traditionally a strong training ground and recruitment source for new pilots, but the combination of a scaling back of armed forces and the rise of technology means far fewer pilots are emerging from the service. (Even as far back as 2009, the U.S. Air Force trained more drone operators than pilots.2)
The cost of flight school coupled with low pay for new hires also makes flying unattractive to many younger people, especially debt-conscious millennials. Flight school can cost $50-100k per year, while salary at the regional airlines where recent graduates typically end up often starts around $25k per year. As regional airlines struggle, hamstrung by competition, consolidation, and tight contracts with legacy airlines, they’re unable to provide the compensation necessary to attract young pilots.
Further, even once you get new recruits in the door, flight schools are challenged with hiring and retaining instructors and examiners and providing training aircraft. In a recent AINonline article, Cap. Lee Collins, president of CAPA, shared that flight schools are having to cap enrollment because there are not enough flight instructors and Designated Pilot Examiners from the FAA, and that students frequently have to wait months at a time to take their check rides.3
The shortage of flight instructors and examiners has become even more critical due to recent changes in regulation. In 2013, the FAA put the 1,500-hour rule into effect, requiring first officers flying for commercial airlines to have at least 1,500 hours of accrued flight time to gain an Air Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, instead of the 250 hours previously required for a commercial license. The FAA also mandated that ATP pilots earn an additional 1,000 flight hours before they qualify to serve as captains. This requirement slowed the pipeline even further and made pilots that meet the criteria even rarer, escalating the competition to hire qualified pilots.
4. Migration to commercial airlines
Ask folks in business aviation about the pilot shortage, and you’ll likely hear one reason more than the rest: the recruitment of pilots from business aviation to commercial airlines. As the pool of pilots has shrunk, commercial airlines have begun offering packages that flight departments can’t match – and pilots can’t refuse. The airlines provide a predictable schedule, fixed days on and off, free travel, greater job stability, retirement benefits, and perhaps most importantly, better compensation. These perks attract recent graduates, who are paying off flight school and starting families, as well as experienced pilots burnt out from years of on-demand schedules.
5. Growth of the business jet market
Finally, as all of these factors and more combine to whittle down the pool of qualified pilots, the business jet market itself is growing fast. Jetcraft predicts that in the next ten years, the total installed fleet of aircraft in business aviation will grow by 37%, and states that “the rise in Ultra-High Net Worth Individuals is spurring growth in family offices and, together with block charter and fractional programs, is facilitating access to business aviation for this customer segment at unprecedented levels.”4 It won’t take ten years to see this growth, however; Honeywell Aerospace states that “We expect 8-10% higher delivery level in 2019 as the industry transitions to new models in a better used aircraft market environment."5
How can business aviation providers compete?
All that context rolls up into a simple fact: in the coming years, there will be more airplanes and more demand from businesses, while the number of pilots to meet that demand continues to diminish. In such a competitive market, how can private aviation organizations attract the quantity and quality of pilots that will make their operation successful?
It starts, of course, with the fundamentals. Private operators should try to match (or at least come close) to the quality of life that commercial airlines can provide, from increasing compensation to creating more predictable schedules to offering better retirement benefits. These are critical components, and for some pilots, will always be the determining factor.
Like employees in any industry, however, the right job isn’t only determined by pay and schedule. Company culture plays a huge role, as does workplace environment. There is a reason that technology companies, which also compete fiercely for talent in an inadequately small talent pool, invest so heavily in the perks and intangibles, from gourmet meals to ping-pong tables in the breakroom to the latest software to time off for volunteering. They understand that even if they can’t pay as much as Google or Apple, they can still create a workplace where people want to be because they have the team, the tools, and the environment they need to succeed at their job.
What does that look like in private aviation? Pretty similar to other industries, as it turns out. Strong leadership that communicates the value of its employees. A culture of inclusion. A clear career path. Work-life balance, even if it means getting creative with staffing and scheduling. Opportunities for training and education. Not all “bonuses” need to be financial – although of course pilots appreciate those, too.
And just like in technology, the right tools can attract the right people. Tech firms will never secure the most talented developers and engineers if they’re forced to work with outdated software and systems. Similarly, pilots need tools and technology to enable their success. This is where Wi-Fi comes in. On a connected aircraft, pilots gain access to real-time information that allows them to make better decisions and better serve their passengers. From weather conditions to airport details to the logistics of rerouting, inflight connectivity creates a workplace environment in which pilots can truly excel.
The pilot shortage in business aviation may be a “first-world problem,” but it’s one whose impact will shape the industry dramatically in the years to come. The origins and the outcomes of the shortage are complex, with no easy answers. At Gogo, we’re here to support business aviation organizations and their pilots however we can. It may not be easy to find the best team for your company, but we can make it easy to give them the environment they need to succeed.
Get in touch to talk about adding Wi-Fi to your fleet, or check out our recent ebook, "The pilot’s guide to inflight Wi-Fi: 6 considerations for why you should fly connected."
1. Garcia, Marisa. 2018. "A 'Perfect Storm' Pilot Shortage Threatens Global Aviation." Forbes.com, July 27, 2018.
2. Barden, Sheryl. 2017. "Pilot Shortage: How We Got Here & What's Next." Aviation Personnel International, July 10, 2017.
3. Rexroth, Alexa. 2018. "Problems in the Pilot Pipeline." AINonline, June 28, 2018.
4. JetCraft. 2018. "10-Year Business Aviation Market Outlook 2018-2027."
5. Haines, Thomas B. 2018. "Slow, Steady Growth in Business Jet Market." AOPA, October 15, 2018.